Alexandre Pantoja might be the nicest guy in MMA.
On Saturday, Pantoja successfully defended his flyweight title, taking home a unanimous decision victory over Brandon Royval in the co-main event of UFC 296. The win was Pantoja’s first successful title defense, and despite his own elation at retaining his belt, Pantoja says he also felt legitimate sadness for Royval.
“He’s a very nice kid. He worked so hard to [get] to that moment,” Pantoja said Monday on The MMA Hour. “Maybe people think I’m [full of] s*** right now, but I’m very sad for Royval. He worked so hard for that moment. I know it’s not just about Royval, he has a lot of people on his side. I lost a couple times and when I lose, my family loses with me, my kids lose with me. It’s not just about one guy, it’s about all people together, trying to get a dream. It’s really hard to do that with someone, You break his heart, but that’s my sport. I love what I do. I love to fight.
“If Royval watches this, I want to say thank you to Royval. A lot of respect to him. He gave a wonderful fight and I love that guy.”
Having respect for an opponent is one thing, but having genuine empathy for them is another, particularly given the build-up to UFC 296, which saw multiple fighters break out the shovels to see how low they could go in an effort to drive interest. Pantoja says one of the things he likes about the flyweight division is the lack of people doing that, but make no mistake, just because he empathizes with his opponents doesn’t mean he’ll let them get in the way of his own agenda.
“Maybe people will think I’m talking bulls***, but that’s how I feel,” Pantoja said. “It’s a very dangerous sport. He lost to me two years ago, he worked so hard, three victories, he was so prepared to fight with me again, but I have my history, I have my legacy to create. I have my kids to take care of, my family to provide for. I have a long journey — 33 [fights] right now, 16-year professional fight [career], and now I can get some money for that. That’s my climb up the mountain, and I need to still climb. I’m not going to stop right now. I need to take this money. I want to retire with good money. I’m not tired.
“I think in this division, all these guys I respect because you don’t see a lot of guys making trash talk. If you’re going to fight for the belt, you deserve to fight for the belt. I don’t think Colby Covington deserved to fight for the belt on Saturday. He just got that because he talks a lot. Maybe he deserves it because he does that, he sells a lot of pay-per-views, that’s good for me. [Laughs.] I don’t know if that’s good for him right now, but he made money for me and for Leon. I think Leon can enjoy that.”
With Royval now in the rear-view, the question for Pantoja becomes who is next. In that regard, the 33-year-old Brazilian isn’t all that concerned with who he’s fighting, so long as the “where” is taken care of.
“I’ll try to bring my next title fight for Brazil,” Pantoja said. “I know the UFC wants to go to Brazil in 2024, especially if they go to Rio de Janeiro, my town — of course, I’m going to watch [Brandon] Moreno vs. [Amir] Albazi. It’s going to be an awesome fight.
“It’s going to be nice to see Albazi fight with someone like Moreno. Everyone talks a lot about how good Moreno is right now, and I want to see that. I want to see how good Moreno is now, and if he wants, we can make the fourth fight with me. It’s going to be awesome for me. And if Albazi wins, that’s great too. A different opponent, somebody with a different game.”
Moreno faces Albazi in a five-round fight at UFC Mexico City scheduled for Feb. 24.